Spinning a web of fun and wonder…that's Charlotte's Web!
Charlotte's Web is a classic children's story by author E.B. White. In 1972, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera produced a cartoon version (was there any other choice?) of the book featuring the voice talents of Debbie Reynolds (Mother), Henry Gibson (Laugh-In, The 'Burbs), Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and Paul Lynde (if you don't know who Paul Lynde is, shame on you). Paramount releases the first ever widescreen version of this kiddie classic featuring the same type of cutting edge animation found in Hanna-Barbera's Super Friends and The Flintstones (and I hope to high heaven you can sense sarcasm when you read it).
Facts of the Case
Meet Wilbur the pig (Gibson). He was born on a farm and had the hapless fate of being the runt of his litter. Just as the local farmer is ready to kill Wilbur with an ax, he is saved by the farmer's daughter Fern (Pamelyn Ferdin). She makes the argument that if she was the runt of their family's litter, would he kill her? Can't argue with that logic. The father sees her point, and allows her to keep the pig as a pet. Fern vows to take care of Wilbur and keep him safe. Wilbur is very happy with her; that is until the day comes when he is too big to be a pet and is carted off to the Zuckerman farm.
There Wilbur meets an assortment of barnyard animals, including his new best friend, Charlotte the spider (Reynolds). Charlotte is pleased that Wilbur has decided to befriend her, and when it's realized that Wilbur is to become Jimmy Dean sausage links, Charlotte vows to help Wilbur from becoming anyone's breakfast. Charlotte spins webs that have words in them to describe Wilbur, including "some pig." It goes without saying that the Zuckerman family is more than impressed believing that the messages are miracles, and that Wilbur is some kind of "über-pig."
Along the way we meet a few other friends of Wilbur, including the gluttonous Templeton the rat (Lynde), prissy Ms. Goose (Moorehead), and a snotty sheep (Dave Madden, Reuben Kincaid from The Partridge Family). All these characters are along for the ride as Wilbur learns lifelong lessons about love, happiness and the everlasting power of friendship.
I liked Charlotte's Web. It was cute. It may be pure children's fluff, but it's cute fluff. I am sure I saw Charlotte's Web when I was a kid, though I don't really recall when or where. Some of the scenes had a sense of nostalgia for me, so I know I at least caught bits and pieces of it on TV at some point in my childhood. I've never read the book, so I'm not an expert on Charlotte's Web's original inspiration.
I suspect that Charlotte's Web will be adored by smaller children who will be able to relate to Wilbur the pig. He's a good hearted softie who wants only to be happy and make those around him like him. Though he is the runt of his litter (as many children often feel), those around him learn that good things can come in small packages. It's a good story with good morals and values, something that tends to be missing in many children's movies these days. If you want further proof of that, take a look at how many of today's movies are marketed toward kids. See Spot Run is geared towards the same demographic that Charlotte's Web is, so what does that tell you?
Charlotte's Web won't win any awards for its animation. Hanna-Barbera was sort of like the Walt Disney of their day, to a lesser degree. They seemed to be everywhere, and when I was a kid you could not escape their brand of stiff moving characters and bleeding ink page look. Then again, many of the cartoons of the 1980s were in that same vein: Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, and The Transformers had only slightly better production values. They now reside in a time capsule of simpler cartoon days. The night before I watched Charlotte's Web, I saw the newest animated Disney film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is filled with more visual awe in its first three minutes than Charlotte's Web has in its entire running time; however, Charlotte's Web possesses a story that is much more universal and true. Proof that you don't have to have flashy computer effects to tell a good story (though sometimes they don't hurt).
The cast of voices will be the most amusing for adults, recognizing such '70s character actors as Agnes Moorehead, Henry Gibson and Paul Lynde doing funny dubs for animated animals. Even Danny Bonaduce gets in on the action. No voice itself is a standout; Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte is soft spoken, and only Paul Lynde as Templeton the rat comes off as a semi-fun. No matter, as the voices all fit fine in the context of the story.
Charlotte's Web is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The image on this disc is not very grand; it's grainy, often times soft, and lacks real depth or detail. In other words, it's a Hanna-Barbera creation all the way. The image's troubles suffer from the source material more than the transfer. This is an early '70s cartoon, and it shows. Though the image is often troubled, overall this is the best we'll probably ever see of Charlotte's Web (and it's not that horribly bad). As a bonus, we get a widescreen edition, which can sometimes be rare when it comes to children's DVDs.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono, and sounds fine. The track is nothing impressive, though dialogue, music, and effects were all mixed well and clear. Also included is a French Dolby Digital Mono track, as well as English subtitles.
Charlotte's Web includes the original theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen, as well as a kids feature called "Meet The Animals," an interactive game where you can read information on different animals, plus try and guess which animal is making which barnyard noise. Though there is nothing particularly fun for adults in this feature, kids might get at least a half hour's worth of fun from it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though Charlotte's Web is a good story, the musical numbers by Richard and Robert Sherman could have easily been cut out of the final film. It's not that they're especially bad, they just aren't especially good. The songs tend to plod on, wearing out their welcome by the thirty minute mark.
The voices in the film are all fine, though Henry Gibson as Wilbur tends to get a bit grating and whiney. "Charlotte, pleeeeaaaassseee don't go" the pig cries. Uggh. Get that swine some tranquilizers, and quickly.
On a different note, what's the deal with pigs and kids? Charlotte's Web features a talking pig as a main character, as do the movies Babe, Babe: Pig In The City and Gordy. Maybe Hollywood is trying to play advocate for the pig, and stop middle America from making them into ham sandwiches.
If you are a fan of '70s animated movies (that don't have the Disney name on them) or have children, Charlotte's Web may be the right purchase for you. Though the image is not superlative, it's still a decent transfer, and a good way to introduce your kids to widescreen films (teach them that widescreen is good, and full frame is bad). With a few included extras, Charlotte's Web will make a keen addition to your cartoon DVD collection.
Free to go and entertain little children and pigs everywhere! Case dismissed!
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